November 22, 2019 / 6:16 AM / 24 days ago

China's stocks of breeding sows rise for first time in 19 months

BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s inventory of breeding sows rose 0.6% in October for the first monthly increase since April 2018, official figures showed, signalling that pig production may soon start to recover after a devastating epidemic of African swine fever.

The decline in the pig herd is also slowing, said Yang Zhenhai, director of the animal husbandry and veterinary bureau under the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs.

The epidemic has cut the country’s huge pig herd by more than 40% and triggered soaring pork prices and food inflation.

The pig herd fell by 0.6% in October, easing from a 3% fall the previous month, he said, and the smallest month-on-month contraction in a year. He did not disclose the year-on-year decline in October but in September it had dropped 41% on the year.

While some analysts have described official numbers as conservative, the ministry figures would still equate to a decline of around 175 million pigs in the national herd.

Dutch firm Rabobank has estimated the herd will be 55% smaller by the end of this year, while others in the industry believe it could be even smaller.

RISING RISKS

There was however a higher risk of outbreaks of the disease in the northeast this winter as temperatures there plunged below zero, the official warned.

Prevention of the disease requires high levels of hygiene, using hot water and disinfectants.

The disease, which kills almost all pigs it infects, has no cure and no vaccine. While China is developing a vaccine against the disease, Yang cautioned that the most advanced product was still at a pre-clinical trial phase.

A pick-up in the transport of live pigs could also raise risks nationwide. China is entering its peak pork demand period with upcoming holidays and more supplies are likely to be moved to high consumption regions.

Recovery of pig output was also set to raise the risk of outbreaks.

“African swine fever has contaminated large areas of our country and outbreaks are expected to continue to take place in spots,” Yang said.

Responding to a question about recent reports of fresh outbreaks in eastern Jiangsu province and other areas, Yang said the ministry had investigated and not found any swine fever but rather “a combined infection of other viruses”.

“Our report and handling of the disease are all transparent and public,” he said.

Still, the ministry on Friday launched a reward system, offering whistleblowers up to 10,000 yuan ($1,420) for reporting violations in the prevention and control of the disease.

Yang reiterated that the ministry expected pig stocks to improve by the end of this year. He said Beijing aimed for pig production to reach 80% of normal levels by the end of 2020.

The 13,000 large farms with production of more than 5,000 pigs per year saw a 4.7% increase in their sow stocks in October versus the prior month, while their pig numbers increased 0.5%.

The ministry also planned to launch an inspection of slaughterhouses across the country to get a complete picture of pork stocks being held in cold storage facilities.

Reporting by Hallie Gu and Dominique Patton; Editing by Richard Pullin and Stephen Coates

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